London art fair shines a light on the Middle East

This week, the Nour Festival of Art opens in London, a two-month-long showcase of artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers - even cooks - from the Middle East and North Africa.

Emel Mathouli features at the Nour Festival of Arts. Courtesy Ghaith Arfaoui
Powered by automated translation

It can be difficult to judge what constitutes success for an arts festival. Sometimes, of course, it's the quality of its star attractions. Others might point to attendance figures. Those with an eye on finances would probably refer to the columns marked profit and loss. But surely not many organisers can be so inundated with interest that they start worrying they might wreck the historic building in which the festival is based. And that's exactly the predicament Alan Kirwan found himself in as the chief curator of one of the most interesting international jamborees of Middle Eastern culture, the Nour Festival of Arts.
"Last year," he laughs, "it got to the point where Leighton House, this amazing building with its incredible Arab Hall, couldn't deal with the number of people who wanted to come to our events. If the festival was to progress it needed to stretch out - otherwise the house would literally have been damaged."
And although Leighton House remains the focal point for the Nour Festival, which promises to deliver "dazzling contemporary artistic talent from the Middle East and North Africa", it has broadened its scope for its third year to encompass cultural venues across the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
"We're lucky that we have such a wealth of Middle Eastern institutions here," admits Kirwan, and to that end, the Mosaic Rooms host an exhibition of the leading contemporary Moroccan artist Abderrahim Yamou, the Mica Gallery showcases art inspired by and responding to Palestine and The Tabernacle presents music from Reem Kelani, Emel Mathlouthi and the Lebanese singer Charbel Rouhana. Even the prestigious V&A is involved, agreeing to place its important photography exhibition Light From The Middle East under the Nour banner.
The intention, says Kirwan, is to highlight the diversity of the Middle East through its arts and culture. "It's also about trying to destroy stereotypes," he adds. "In the three years of the festival we've noticed a real shift in the reactions and views of people who perhaps only saw awful news headlines when they thought about the Middle East. That doesn't mean that our artists won't investigate some of those political issues in their work, but first and foremost we're interested in supporting what they're doing as a contemporary craft."
Which is why the programming of the graphic designer and artist Muiz Anwar makes perfect sense. His first solo exhibition in the UK, Nuclear Nuqta, takes centre stage as Nour opens at Leighton House this week, and as a broad introduction to the full spectrum of his interest in graphic arts, including calligraphy, logo work, illustration - even magazine design - it's fascinating stuff.
"A lot of my work uses imagery that subverts stereotypes," Anwar says, putting the finishing touches to the exhibition. "As a Muslim and someone with a background from the Middle East, it's felt like there's a lack of opportunity to get messages heard. But since the revolutions, I certainly feel there's a more overt political platform within the arts."
One of the most interesting ways in which Anwar explores such issues is through his take on Arabic typography. His Morse Code Arabic series pushes Arabic to its legible limits, boiling down words such as Allah, Khadijah and Bismillah into circles and lines.
"My theory is, as long as my mum can decipher them, it's fine," he laughs. "It's actually good fun to try and decode them - it's my party piece, in a way. But it has a serious message, that Arabic typography is seen as very traditional, very static. And yet not everyone in the Middle East wears traditional dress; we're a globalised community. It's why festivals such as these are so important, to get these sorts of points across."
Apt, then, that the translation of Nour is illumination. It's a festival genuinely shining a light on the culture of the Middle East.
Five other Nour festival highlights
Dia Batal
Now based in the UK, this Palestinian designer and artist's tables, benches and artworks form part of her Translations series. All inspired in some way by Arabic text, these intriguing pieces are designed to be enjoyed and used rather than looked at from afar. She also presents a moving new installation inspired by the troubles in Syria.
November 6-30, Leighton House
Light From The Middle East: New Photography
The eagerly awaited exhibition of contemporary photography from or about the Middle East opens at the V&A next month - and now comes under the Nour Festival umbrella. Look out for National favourite Nermine Hammam, who is showing her brilliant series from Tahrir Square.
November 13-April 7, 2013, Victoria and Albert Museum
The London MENA Film Festival (LMFF)
More proof that Nour is spreading its wings comes with the London Middle East And North African Film Festival. The Short Film Night is of particular interest - it features four movies with connections to the UAE, including Mohamed Adeeb's Five Pounds, which won several international awards.
October 31-November 2, Leighton House
Attab Haddad Ensemble
The music strand is particularly strong this year, with appearances from Reem Kelani and the Tunisian songwriter Emel Mathlouthi. But one of the most fascinating concerts is by Attab Haddad, who takes his oud on a journey through jazz, while still evoking the sounds of the Middle East.
October 26, Leighton House
Supper Club
Proving that Nour isn't all about art, Sarah Al-Hamad - the author of Cardamom And Lime: Recipes From The Arabian Gulf - presents both a three-course meal and a high tea. Both events will explore the traditions and stories around cooking and eating Middle Eastern food, as well as offer the opportunity to prepare some of the dishes.
Dinner on October 11, secret venue. High Tea November 11, secret venue
. Nour Festival of Arts runs until November 30 at various venues in